The Romans had a saying: In vino est veritas, which means “In wine is truth.” Perfection is hard to come by, but Sideways comes pretty dang close to achieving it, unwrapping a prized bottle of veritas and allowing us to revel in its aroma. It is as if writer Jim Taylor and co-writer/director Alexander Payne have popped the cork off one of the last unopened bottles of truly unique film material and poured a perfect bouquet into a glass for us to savour and taste in all its exquisiteness.
It is too tempting to forego the extensive metaphors Sideways provides; like a thick cluster of the finest Pinot grapes, it relishes each comparative note and sensation, and sheds a full-bodied warmth on a little-plucked corner of relationships known as heterosexual male friendship, but is no less insightful in addressing issues like self-esteem (not the namby-pamby PC stuff, but the true essence of evaluative self-worth), commitment, and honesty.
Working from Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, Payne and Taylor invoke a true male bonding experience that exposes, for better and worse, the insecurities of middle-age maledom. In exploring common connections that drive humans together, Sideways opens the door to a greater understanding of how to face the day. For some, just becoming aware that one’s life is dependent upon another’s is enough. For others, a more complete validation of their life is necessary.
And so goes the story of Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), a struggling novelist, and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who is scheduled to be married in a week, as they celebrate his upcoming nuptials and the pending publication of Miles’ book by taking a week-long trip through California wine country, tasting the best (and worst) the sunny countryside has to offer, playing golf, and for Jack, “getting laid before getting married”, a prospect Miles finds reproachable, if not downright distasteful.
Jack observes Miles’ solemn demeanor as they set out and vows that this week is to be his last fling, a rowdy, lusty adventure before being put into the bonds of matrimony, and begs him to lighten up, to cut loose, and just enjoy their time together. Miles is enthusiastic, but he suffers from the burdens of a divorce two years’ past, the suspicion that his novel won’t pass muster with the publisher, and a hidden despair for the failure he sees himself as.
Jack, a former TV star whose fifteen minutes are long gone (a nice cinematic parallel to Church’s real life career), revels in the prospect of meeting new women, and his outgoing nature finds an anchor in Maya (Virginia Madsen) who waits tables at Miles’ favourite restaurant and who seems to “light up like a pinball machine” whenever Miles is around, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at one of the winery’s they visit. The four of them make plans for dinner and before long, Jack and Stephanie are ensconced in animal-like passionate sexual romps, leaving Miles and Maya to struggle awkwardly in making a connection.
Miles elucidates on the qualities of Pinot grapes to explain his love of Pinot wines to Maya; his description is as reflexive as a mirror, though he can’t see the similarities within himself. Here, the film really starts to capture the inner character, the qualities of each man, their failings, insecurities, and also their strengths. Whilst Jack is immature and one thought away from an affair, Miles is sensitive and obsessive about wine; their friendship, its foundation in their inherent opposing personalities, is challenged and strengthened by the new ardor Jack has for Stephanie, and Miles’ inability to break free from the painful divorce with his wife two years ago.
Stephanie’s discovery of Jack’s upcoming marriage threatens Maya’s and Miles’ new and tentative friendship, whilst Jack himself discovers the pain of a woman scorned (or rather, burned) and his ultimate need for the stability of marriage to keep him from falling into an abyss of a post-fame existence.
Every actor acquits themselves with the utmost surety and honesty, though it can’t have been too difficult given the quality of script and story. Giamatti proves himself one of the finest “unknown” actors of this generation, whilst Church exhibits the comeback qualities of Robert Forster. Madsen and Oh support them with fine performances of their own, and Payne’s direction is flawlessly tuned to the finer details and depth of scope. I see this as the Oscar winner for Best Picture this year, despite the many great contenders, and I would not be surprised if Payne wins a statue for directing as well.
Sideways offers the hope of renewal in a life not fully lived, and presents a view of friendship, happiness, desire, betrayal, and the eternal sunshine of hope in a world that often is filled with dark clouds of unrealized dreams and potential gone unnoticed. The resolution of each character’s inner struggles to come to terms with themselves and the world in which they live is as haunting and truthful as the wine. In this world of wine and relationships, Sideways is veritas.
Fringe Rating: out of 5
UPDATE: Gerard van der Leun at American Digest, with whom I am collaborating as a sort of “Film Correspondent” of sorts, thinks there’s much less to Sideways than meets the eye (or critics’ praise-filled reviews). It’s an interesting counterpoint to my own opinion, and thought you might like to read it.